Driving modern tech in a post-pandemic world

IT leaders discuss lessons learned and upcoming projects during a webinar Wednesday sponsored by Dell Technologies.

Digital transformation

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There is no rest for the weary and IT leaders from Dell Technologies, Honeywell, the City of Amarillo, Texas, and the Vancouver Film School said the post-pandemic world will require continued digitization at an accelerated pace and the implementation of new technologies.

Speaking on a panel sponsored by Dell Technologies, the leaders discussed how they responded, what they learned and how they are innovating to serve their customers, employees and communities. The key themes were responsiveness, adaptability and the ability to accelerate because of preparations before the start of the pandemic.

"Having adaptive staff and a modern infrastructure" that allowed for VDI and disaster recovery "allowed us to move quickly and be responsive to changes in the environment," said Richard Gagnon, CIO for Amarillo. This enabled IT to offsite essential city personnel in days rather than weeks, he said.

SEE: What are the ingredients of digital transformation success? (TechRepublic)

The pandemic also exposed the digital divide in the city of 200,000 residents, Gagnon said, when city officials discovered that "pockets of our community didn't have access to essential services."

Bernard Gucake, head of IT for the Vancouver Film School, said the school wasn't originally designed to be an online campus and the challenge was gaining enough bandwidth for data-intensive apps students used when they went remote. The school worked with Dell and Teradici to enable students to use remote workstations. IT also deployed artificial intelligence to determine where any bottlenecks were.

"One challenge still out of control is students with varying internet speeds and Wi-Fi access,'' since they reside all around Canada and abroad, Gucake said.

Pivoting quickly and learning to adjust 

Sheila Jordan, chief digital technology officer at Honeywell, was on day 59 of the job when the pandemic hit. "Our network wasn't ready and we were not a traditional work from home organization," she recalled. In eight days, IT upgraded the network to allow for VPN access, she said.

It was also a period of adjustment for Honeywell employees, who had to be coaxed into using video conferencing, Jordan said. "We said: 'Turn your videos on. We don't care if you're wearing slippers. What came from that was an incredible bonding experience'' that meant learning more about employees' lives outside of work.

That "used to be an intrusion and now it's the other half of who we are, and it bridged the gap to employee engagement and productivity."

Panel moderator Jen Felch, chief digital officer and CIO of Dell Technologies, said the company is investing in DevOps and learned about the need to accelerate. "We often talk about automating other people's processes,'' she said, "but we looked internally to see where we have delays and manual processes and that's probably been the biggest accelerator for us." This has led to refactoring apps to make them cloud-native and giving developers capacity back by deploying more self-provisioning capabilities.

Amarillo's IT staff are looking to build on the agility they developed and expand that out to the community now. "One of the first lessons learned from going from the private sector to the public sector is that success comes when you get leadership" on board, Gagnon said. This means partnering with academic and private sector leaders all across the city and developing shared infrastructure, he said.

Gagnon said this reminds him of when the iPhone first came out and changed people's expectations for how they received apps. "They're expected by the workforce and the community and that is driving a lot of our strategy internally."

Data is the currency for digital transformation, Jordan said. Her team is working on extracting data from siloed internal business units and developing end-to-end processes to develop different experiences with customers, partners and employees.

"So data as a service is a big imperative and moving to AI, which I call actionable insights" that the business can take advantage of, Jordan said.  

The next areas of focus

The next few years will see the intersection of IT and OT, Jordan said. Honeywell will have products that allow customers to see data holistically and manage the health of their facilities while providing transparency into what is going on in the supply chain and in corporate IT sensors. "It's a really interesting pivot point where IT and OT are coming together moving from the shop floor to the top floor."

Because the media entertainment field produces "an outrageous amount of data," Gucake said IT needs to adjust its priorities to make sure students have access to powerful workstations wherever they are and provide a solid backbone for data-intensive graphics.

"We have to look more closely at [help desk] tickets and sit down with IT and figure out as a team how to solve these problems and make the experience better for users. That's what helps you transform as an organization,'' he said.

The speakers also discussed their broader IT strategies. Felch said Dell is "a lot more focused around a digital-first approach" and has launched Apex, its infrastructure-as-a-service capability. IT is also building private clouds and developing processes to be cloud-agnostic for greater flexibility, she said.

Jordan said Honeywell is making significant investments in 5G processes and the company is opening a new 5G-enabled headquarters in Charlotte over the summer. 

Automation is another area of focus "when you have a plethora of data and repeatable processes." Honeywell is announcing its first smart virtual assistant to improve the employee experience, she said.

With the modern infrastructure in place, Amarillo is starting to accelerate projects to enable more data-driven decision making, as well as robotics process automation and analytics, Gagnon said. IT is also expanding its broadband project to give all citizens access to essential services.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Richard Gagnon. 

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